IT History Society Blog

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Why Care Who Invented the First Computer?

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

During January some of you might have noticed a running dialogue among historians and other interested parties about who invented the “first” computer. There was no agreement reached on the correct answer to that question. Discussions about “firsts” pop up about every five years, almost like short-lived brush fires on the side of the road as historians travel on to do their serious work. Over the past forty years I have seen articles and books, even one lawsuit on patents, over the question of “firsts.”

The interest in “firsts” is not limited just to computers, it seems to be all over the place regarding any modern technology, and it is not limited to historians, but includes those interested in patent protections, copyrights, or just plain old curiosity. It seems for many reasons “firsts” are interesting and important. In the movies it is the “aha” moment that we see when Madame Curie discovered radiation, or earlier Alexander Graham Bell made his first phone call. In recent years there have been discussions about the first PC, with suggestions that it may have been made in Eastern Europe, or that some guy did it in California in the early 1960s and didn’t tell anyone. Failure to exploit technological innovations is another source of conversation, with Xerox Park the perennial favorite for letting too many cool widgets slip by.

Many of these discussions, indeed most of them, are only interesting, not terribly relevant. While it would be great if we could identify the first person who made the first tooth brush and nail down the date of that glorious event, it is never going to happen. We cannot get agreement on when the first computer was built, although this year Colossus is ahead in the race; past contenders for that recognition have included MIT’s differential analyzer, ENIAC, EDVAC, and UNIVAC, each a champion in its own time.

The reason we cannot agree on which was the first computer, or even the first e-mail sent, or the first PC ever built is because computing and all other inventions normally emerge in an evolutionary manner. People take an existing device, and modify it so slightly; then someone else does the same thing to that modified device, and so forth, until such a point that (a) someone gives it a name and it takes off as the “first” of something or (b) when connected to something else becomes so useful that it now comes out of the shadows as if a brand new item. There were PCs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but not until Apple and IBM were able to sell desktop computers in quantity did the notion of the PC finally take hold, with Apple doing its magic in the late 1970s, IBM in the early 1980s. Those are examples of the first type of innovation. That may be going on today with the humble light bulb as it evolves into something other than an incandescent bulb.

As for (b)—linking things together—connecting computers to telephone lines made possible online and telecommunications. Did that happen in 1940? In 1969? Or later with development of the World Wide Web? The answer is yes for each time. So, what are we to make of all this?

The takeaway is simple. All IT is really quite complex to invent, to make, to use, so much so that when you study specific examples in any detail, you realize no one individual could create all the elements involved. It was and remains an iterative process. Historians who have examined IT’s history tell that story continuously, such as Paul Ceruzzi, Tom Haigh, and Jeff Yost, to mention a few. They keep finding that “firsts” turn out to be “combinations,” “iterations,” “evolutions,” not one time spectacular events. And that is a core lesson about how computers came about and why the technology continues to evolve. Literally millions of people in over 100 countries are tinkering with hardware, software, components, computer science, uses, and ideas about information management. Bottom line, it is nearly impossible to be the “first” to invent anything as complex as a computer. Even developers of cell phone “apps” are building on each other’s prior work.

But, it still is fun to argue who invented the first computer or the first toothbrush.

Old Software and Games….They’re Alive!

Friday, January 10th, 2014

internet-archive-gamesEver get the urge to mess with Visicalc or WordStar again? Play the original Donkey Kong or Adventure on your computer? Now you can!

The Internet Archive, in a Christmas gift to the world, has unleashed the Historical Software Archive, a collection of prominent and historically notable pieces of software that you can run in your browser.  They range from pioneering applications to obscure forgotten utilities, and from peak-of-perfection designs to industry-crashing classics. And if you get the urge to play the videogames you grew up with from Coleco, Atari, Magnavox and Odyssey, you can head to the Console Living Room, a collection of console video games from the 1970s and 1980s.

These come by way of JSMESS, a Javascript port of the MESS emulator, a computer and console emulator that has been in development for over a decade and a half by hundreds of volunteers. The MESS emulator runs in a large variety of platforms, but is now able to run embedded in most modern browsers, including Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer.

Stop wasting time – or more likely, start wasting time – and see what the Internet Archive has brought us.

More about the Historical Software Archive

More about the Console Living Room

Computer Pioneer Alan Turing Pardoned by UK for “crime” he didn’t commit

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

The United Kingdom has finally pardoned Alan Turing for a gay sex conviction which tarnished the brilliant career of the code breaker credited with helping win the war against Nazi Germany and laying the foundation for the computer age.

Turing’s contributions to science spanned from computer science to biology, but he’s perhaps best remembered as the architect of the effort to crack the Enigma code, the cipher used by Nazi Germany to secure its military communications. Turing’s groundbreaking work – combined with the effort of cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park near Oxford and the capture of several Nazi code books – gave the Allies the edge across half the globe, helping them defeat the Italians in the Mediterranean, beat back the Germans in Africa and escape enemy submarines in the Atlantic.

“It could be argued and it has been argued that he shortened the war, and that possibly without him the Allies might not have won the war,” said David Leavitt, the author of a book on Turing’s life and work. “That’s highly speculative, but I don’t think his contribution can be underestimated. It was immense.”

Turing also pioneered the field of computer science, theorizing the existence of a “universal machine” that could be programmed to carry out different task years before the creation of the world’s fully functional electronic computer. Turing ideas matured into a fascination with artificial intelligence and the notion that machines would someday challenge the minds of man. When the war ended, Turing went to work programing the world’s early computers, drawing up – among other things – one of the first computer chess games.


Personal Perspective:

When this author took his first computer science class in the Fall of 1966, the instructor described “the Turing machine” - a hypothetical device that manipulates symbols on a strip of tape according to a table of rules.  It was invented in 1936 by Alan Turing and used to help computer scientists understand the limits of mechanical computation.  In particular, the Turing machine gave rise to the concepts of “algorithm” and “computation” within the model of a general purpose computer (stored program machine).

Turing is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.  His pardon was long overdue!


Testimonials to Doug Englebart: Dec 9, 2013 @CHM

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Computer visionary Doug Englebart was posthumously honored on December 9th at the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mt View, CA.  The date of this event was significant, because December 9 was the 45th Anniversary of the “Mother of All Demos.^”  Doug’s wife, daughter, and several people that worked with Doug or knew of his work made brief speeches to honor him.  The speakers included: Bill English, Chief Engineer at SRI who built the 1st mouse based on Englebart’s notes ; Stewart Brand, President of Long Now Foundation and Whole Earth Catalog publisher; futurist Paul Saffo, Guerrino De Luca, Chairman of Logitech;  Curtis Carlson, CEO of SRI; Adam Cheyer, Co-founder of Siri; and Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler, former Director at SRI.

Funding for this event was provided by SRI International and Logitech.


^  “The Mother of All Demos” is a name given retrospectively to Douglas Engelbart’s December 9, 1968, computer demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. The live demonstration featured the introduction of a complete computer hardware—software system called the oN-Line System or more commonly, NLS. The 90-minute presentation essentially demonstrated almost all the fundamental elements of modern personal computing: multiple windows, hypertext, graphics, efficient navigation and command input, video conferencing, the computer mouse, word processing, dynamic file linking, revision control, and a collaborative real-time editor (collaborative work). Engelbart’s presentation was the first to publicly demonstrate all these elements in a single system. The demonstration was highly influential and spawned similar projects at Xerox PARC in the early 1970s. The underlying technologies influenced both the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows graphical user interface operating systems in the 1980s and 1990s.


Marc Weber, Web historian and founding curator of the CHM’s Internet History Program, said: “When it comes to the kind of knowledge navigation and collaboration tools that were the heart of Engelbart’s system, we’ve climbed only the first rung of the ladder. The same is true when it comes to the daunting goal that drove him to build all of his technology — to augment human intellect so that we might better address the world’s big problems.”


It was said that Engelbart’s great insight was making computers interactive and easier to use.  That in turn would result in a “flowering of humanity.” He foresaw computer technologies as augmenting people’s abilities and intellect rather than replacing them.   Many speakers acclaimed Doug as a visionary, but did not articulate his accomplishments or what his vision actually was.  For that reason, the talks didn’t live up to the expectations of many in the audience, including this author.  The SRI Augmentation Research Center was frequently mentioned by speakers, but it’s mission, funding, or accomplishments were not described.  


From Wikipedia:

Under Engelbart’s guidance, the Augmentation Research Center developed, with funding primarily from DARPA, the NLS to demonstrate numerous technologies, most of which are in modern widespread use; this included the computer mouse, bitmapped screens, hypertext; all of which were displayed at The Mother of All Demos in 1968. The lab was transferred from SRI to Tymshare in the late 1970s, which was acquired by McDonnell Douglas in 1984, and NLS was renamed Augment. At both Tymshare and McDonnell Douglas, Engelbart was limited by a lack of interest in his ideas and funding to pursue them, and retired in 1986.


John Markoff wrote in the December 16, 2013  NY Times:
“During the 1960s in Menlo Park, Calif., at the Stanford Research Institute, Dr. Engelbart created a research group to design what he described as the oN Line System, or N.L.S. It was intended to augment small groups of knowledge workers. Along the way, he pioneered computer interfaces by inventing the computer mouse, hypertext and many of the other components of modern computing.”


Comments on the event:

Here’s an anonymous comment, received via email, from someone who knew and worked with Englebart that flew from out of state to attend this event:

“I enjoyed being at the Englebart event, but was disappointed that some of the speakers didn’t look towards the future and speculate what might lay ahead based upon Doug’s work.  I would have also liked to hear from some people who worked on the social side of what Doug had envisioned.”

CHM Chairman of the Board Len Shustek wrote in an email: “I thought the evening was terrific. It really gave a sense of the man, and of the disappointment that he couldn’t make more progress on his agenda.”


Doug Englebart was elected as a CHM Fellow in 2005:  “For advancing the study of human-computer interaction, developing the mouse input device, and for the application of computers to improving organizational efficiency.”

Doug’s bio is at:,Engelbart/

Guide to the SRI ARC/NIC records is at:



Fire Damages Internet Archive Scanning Center

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Fire in the Scanning CenterThere was a fire at the Internet Archive’s San Francisco scanning center recently. The good news is that no one was hurt and no data was lost. Their main building wasn’t affected except for damage to one electrical run which caused them to lose power to some servers for a while.

The San Francisco Fire Department was fast and great. This episode should remind everyone that digitizing and making copies are good strategies for both access and preservation. The Internet Archive has data in multiple locations, so even if their main building had been involved in the fire they still would not have lost the amazing content they have worked so hard to collect.

An early estimate shows they may have lost about $600,000 worth of high-end digitization equipment and they will need to repair or rebuild the scanning building. It’s heartening to know that an outpouring of support brought in over 1500 donations totaling over $60,000 in the first two days alone.

For more information and to learn how you can help them keep this important project going, read Brewster Kahle’s posts on the Internet Archive blog.

To make a donation, CLICK HERE.